Cassia cinnamon is a popular spice that’s often associated with cooler seasons. With its origins in various regions of Southeast Asia, this fragrant spice was a sought after commodity across cultures and historical eras. Cassia cinnamon has been used in traditional medicine for centuries, and recent scientific studies have confirmed its potent medicinal properties.
Cassia cinnamon is predominantly cultivated in China, Vietnam and Indonesia. These regions have a favorable tropical climate, which allows the cinnamon trees to thrive. The trees produce long, thick and strong inner bark, which is harvested and processed to extract the spice we commonly find in our kitchen cabinets. Slightly reddish brown in color, it has a strong, sweet and spicy flavor that adds warmth and depth to both savory and sweet dishes.
A spice that can evoke feelings of nostalgia for many people, cinnamon has held a special allure across cultures throughout the long history of its use. In ancient Egypt—where it was used as medicine and as an embalming agent—cinnamon was believed to have been brought there by a mythical Phoenix. According to the legend, the Phoenix collected cinnamon sticks from a faraway land and used them to build its nest. During its rebirth, the nest caught fire and the aroma of burning cinnamon wafted through the air. As a result, people discovered the spice's wonderful fragrance and flavor.
Egyptian stories about this spice influenced the Greeks and Romans. The Greek historian Herodotus wrote about the cinnamon bird, which he claimed was native to Arabia - the sole source of cinnamon at the time. The giant cinnamon birds would use the cinnamon sticks from an unknown location to build their nests on sheer cliffs. In the Roman Empire, cinnamon was imported in large quantities but wasn't widely used as a cooking spice. Instead, it was more commonly used in perfumes, fragrances and wine flavoring.
Later on, in the age of European expansion, cinnamon became so highly valued that the desire for control of its production and trade led to international conflicts, massacres and market manipulation. In the early 1500s, the Portuguese arrived in Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon, where they established control of the cinnamon trade. Sri Lanka is the primary producer of what is known as Ceylon cinnamon or “true cinnamon” (Cinnamomum verum).
Cassia cinnamon and Ceylon cinnamon belong to the same botanical family. However, the latter is considered milder and sweeter, and is often used for recipes where a more delicate flavor is desired. Some people claim that Ceylon cinnamon is “real cinnamon” whereas cassia cinnamon is “fake cinnamon.” However, both are real cinnamon—and it's difficult not to suspect that the idea of Ceylon cinnamon being “real cinnamon” is an echo of stories that maintained its elevated market value in the history of its trade.
Over the course of the next 200 years, the Portuguese, Dutch and British fought each other for a monopoly on the plantations and trade as they enforced colonial rule on Sri Lankans. However, as cinnamon saplings were transplanted to other parts of the world, the importance of Ceylon cinnamon waned and its use declined. Now, when cinnamon comes to mind, we’re most likely thinking of one of the varieties of cassia cinnamon—Indonesian, Chinese or Saigon.
Cinnamon’s Medicinal Properties
The number of medicinal uses for cinnamon is just as impressive as its culinary uses. In herbal and traditional medicines across the world, cinnamon has been employed to support digestion, blood function, glycemic response and immune response. And while both cassia and Ceylon cinnamon are used for culinary and medicinal purposes, it's important to be aware of the distinction between the two, as they have different potential health effects due to differences in their chemical compositions. Cassia cinnamon contains higher levels of coumarin, a compound that can be toxic in large amounts, so you should limit your intake to 1 teaspoon (2.5 grams) per day. Ceylon cinnamon is lower in coumarin and might be a better choice for regular consumption of greater quantities. However, the medicinal properties of cinnamon extend across all its varieties.
Some of the potential benefits of cinnamon are:
- Antioxidant Properties: Cinnamon is rich in antioxidants, which help protect cells from damage caused by free radicals. Antioxidants may have various health benefits, including reducing inflammation and lowering the risk of chronic diseases.
- Anti-Inflammatory Effects: Some compounds found in cinnamon have been shown to possess anti-inflammatory properties. Chronic inflammation is linked to various health conditions, including heart disease and certain types of cancer.
- Blood Sugar Regulation: Cinnamon may help improve insulin sensitivity and lower blood sugar levels. It can potentially be beneficial for individuals with type 2 diabetes or those at risk of developing the condition. However, its effects on blood sugar can vary between individuals.
- Antimicrobial Activity: Cinnamon contains compounds that have been found to have antimicrobial properties, which means they can help inhibit the growth of bacteria, fungi and other microorganisms. This could have implications for oral health and food preservation.
- Heart Health: Some studies suggest that cinnamon may have a positive impact on heart health by lowering LDL ("bad") cholesterol levels and triglycerides. These effects could contribute to a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.
- Brain Health: Certain compounds in cinnamon, particularly cinnamaldehyde, have been studied for their potential neuroprotective effects. These effects could play a role in maintaining brain health and reducing the risk of neurodegenerative diseases.
It's important to keep in mind that while cinnamon does offer potential health benefits, it's not a miracle cure and should not be relied upon as the sole means of addressing health issues.
With fall just around the corner, why not find new ways to savor cinnamon? It’s a key ingredient in Nussli118° 's Apple Cinnamon Granola, Balance Superfood Blend and Spiced Pumpkin Squares. As the leaves start to turn and the air becomes crisp, it's a great time to embrace this warming spice. From its antioxidant properties to its potential to regulate blood sugar levels and improve heart health, this spice has proven its worth in traditional and modern medicine. The next time you reach into your pantry, consider opting for cinnamon and let it work its wonders in both your culinary creations and your wellbeing.
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